Submitted by George
In the 1930s about 2% of young people in the United Kingdom went to university. That figure is now approaching 50%. In which era was it more of a distinction? It is patent that a degree has become declasse in both senses. I hear you say that only 2% of people went on to university in the 1930s because most people were financially obligated to leave school in their mid teens. University was simply not on the radar of most people. There is much truth in this. Further, you might argue that these days people receive more years of education and that is desirable. These people gain from tertiary education. Again there is some merit to this argument.
The Butler Education Act of 1944 provided for a huge expansion of third level education. This was predicated on the Beveridge Report of 1943. The report was prepared by the eponymous Sir William Beveridge. Not co-incidentally Sir William was Master of University College Oxford. He was also a Liberal MP. In those days Oxford and Cambridge provided half of all the university places in the United Kingdom. The Oxbridge dons who envisaged a major increase in the number of university places imagined that they would be founding more universities of a similar quality to Oxford and Cambridge. They were gravely. mistaken.
Until 1828 England had only two universities. Then University College London was founded. It was followed by Durham in quick succession. By the end of the century the major cities in England all had their own university – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and so forth. Scotland had four universities dating back to the Middle Ages. Wales did not have a university until the late 19th century. Ireland had Trinity College Dublin since 1592.
In the early 1960s only 4% of young people went on to university. The government then contemplated a major expansion of higher education. Auberon Waugh harrumphed ‘more means worse’. It did not have to be so but that was the way it transpired. Universities could have been expanded without sacrificing quality. At first there was little reduction in standards. As we are to see in time standards were thrown out altogether.
The degree classification system was introduced at Oxford at the dawn of the 1800s. It rapidly spread throughout the realm and then the empire. Perhaps a tenth of graduates were awarded a first class degree. In some universities that figure is approaching 50%.
Undergraduates and postgraduates are wont to complain if they do not receive a 2:1 or first. It must have been the don’s fault. The student can only have been poorly taught. It cannot possibly be that he or she lacked the aptitude or application. In fairness, there is the occasional academic who is not good at teaching. But at university a student is expected to be an adult. He or she must taken responsibility for learning. In the good old days such complaints would not have been entertained. To become an academic in the UK a PhD is almost a prerequisite. There are additional qualifications in teaching for academics. These are very demanding so it is hard to imagine that a below part academic would slip through the net. Why do academics need a PhD? As recently as they 1990s there were quite a few who were plain mister or miss. The necessity of obtaining a doctorate is yet another symptom of qualification inflation. Not long ago if someone had a first from Oxford or Cambridge he or she might be offered a fellowship straightaway. The college knew that this person was bright enough. The young fellow would start to tutor immediately and write academic papers too.
In fairness there are some good reasons why grades appear to have been inflated. Yes grade inflation is real. But there is another factor. If someone graduated even 30 years ago he or she was in a small minority. A decently paying white collar job was all but assured. These days everyone worth his salt has a degree. Therefore, things are more competitive. Undergraduates are wont to study harder. A degree in itself is no passport to a job even a poorly paid one.
Academics have told me how they have to massage grades rather roughly. Management has a whip on their backs to do so.
There is no failure. It is called deferred success.
The rot set in decades ago. The rate of decline has sped up. It has been estimated that in 30 years time every single graduate will be awarded a first.
Thatcher said that undergraduates must be perceived as customers. They must get value for money. Universities are afraid of them. The students are the masters. It is a non-violent version of the Cultural Revolution in China. A student can bang his fist on the table and demand this and that. The university does not want to upset a valued client.
The fundamental mistake has been to consider universities to be part of the economy. In previous centuries their role was regarded as educational. That is now seen as quaint. For Thatcher it was all profit and loss. She did not think education had any inherent value. Universities ought to be about learning not earning. If you want to get rich then go and make money. If you want to be educated go to university. It is possible to do both. But do not mistake the primary purpose of university.
To be fair to Thatcher she had a point when she said that certain universities were self-serving and unproductive. At Oxford and Cambridge some bibulous dons cared only for claret and conversation. They cared little for undergraduates whom they regarded as an annoyance at best. They produced few shoddy monographs. However, there were very few who were this bad. Maggie Thatcher also saw universities as being a nationalized industry. In fact universities were never state owned. She was suspicious of academics as left wingers. She was correct that a great many were and are left wing. More than a few are outright communists.
When John Major became prime minister the United Kingdom has roughly 40 universities. The UK also had about 40 polytechnics. A polytechnic could award a bachelor’s degree as its highest qualification. Polytechnics mostly gave diplomas and certificates. The students there generally studied technical subjects such as art, hairdressing, makeup, dance, metal work, woodwork, plumbing and technical drawing. In 1992 John Major decided on a complete overhaul. He was the least educated prime minister the UK ever had. James Callaghan had no higher education but he still cherished education and was widely read. Major proved himself to be a staggering ignoramus. He upgraded all the polytechnics to university status. At a stroke he hugely diminished the standing of British universities.
Printing more money does not enrich us all. Printing more degrees does not enrich us educationally. You might say I am not comparing like with like. If more people attain a high standard of education then though ought to be given a degree in recognition of that. Here I agree. I do not advocate returning to the 1930s when only 2% of people went to university. There has got to be a happy medium between that and the ludicrous situation we are in now when anyone can be awarded a degree. In the early 1980s we had it about right.
It is preposterous that universities can choose what degree class to award. There is clearly a conflict of interest here. It looks best for the university on the league table to award as many firsts as possible. Why wouldn’t you? Everyone else is doing it.
If you are a student and you see people complain and get higher grades you might be tempted to likewise. You would be a fool not to. FIDDLE the system.
Universities need students. How do they attract them? Providing superb education from distinguished academics ought to be the way. There are less noble strategies. Award high classes of degree to as many as possible. Do not fail any student no matter how idle or incapable. Give them freebies. Some hand out free laptops. But there is no such thing as a free lunch. These students are in debt for university. It will have to be paid back. In fact these people are burdening themselves with tens of thousands of pounds of debt. The government estimates a third of it will never be repaid. It is driving up the deficit. It is also taking money away from the NHS and armed forces.
I am not demeaning people in their teens and early 20s. There are just as many gifted young people as ever. Many of them are diligent. Their achievements should not be belittled. The trouble is that it is hard to tell who is a high achiever from class of degree. There are some who truly deserve a first. There are others who do not. Awarding first class degrees to second class students does a disservice to those who genuinely merit firsts.
Money is squandered on glossy advertising. Brochures have said how many one night stands students have. I am not judgmental about promiscuity. I am simply saying it should not be part of a university’s pitch.
When Thatcher became PM 10% of people went to university. Full funding was feasible. As the number of people in higher education reached 50% of youngsters the same level of funding was unaffordable.
Treating universities as businesses is fundamentally wrong. The approach to degrees has been stack em high sell em cheap. They are cheap in the sense that they are easy. Conversely their price has increased markedly.
It is hard to believe that until the late 1990s undergraduates paid not a penny in fees. Further, they were even given maintenance grants in the early 1990s. Even if your parents were millionaires you were given money to live on by the government. It was not a loan.
The amount of money that the government spends on undergraduates is lower in real terms than ever before. Yet we are told the results are better than ever. Smell a rat? This is utterly impossible.
Full disclosure: I was awarded a 2:1 in my first bachelor’s degree in 1999. Had I done it 10 years earlier I probably would have got a 2:2. Had I done it now I might even have landed a first. In my second bachelor’s I was given a 2:2. Ten years earlier that would have been a third. Nowadays would it be a 2:1? I did a master’s and was awarded a 2:2. I should not even have been admitted to the course. The course director assured me that no one fails. There is not bottom line!
In my linguistics MA I was taught the parts of speech! Admittedly there were some challenging parts of the course too.
There are structured PhDs. Having so much helps defeats the objective of a PhD.
When business imperatives and educational imperatives collide it is the former that wins out every single time. Educational standards will always be sacrificed to market forces. It is all a sham.
Master’s degrees used to be a rarity. Now they are handed out like billy-o.
Armies of substandard graduates are around. Unsurprisingly they cannot find jobs commensurate with their qualifications. Put simply there are only so many graduate jobs. ‘But we paid for our degrees’. You cannot buy a brain.
Academic freedom is under attack. Woe betide any academic with the courage to say that people are all too often grades that their work does not merit.
The ridiculous ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign took place at Oxford. Some snowflakes demanded the removal of the statue of a 19th century imperialist. These students could have chosen not to apply to Oxford if the statue was so offensive. In a rare example of backbone the university refused to remove the image. All too often universities bow the knee to bully boy tactics. There are safe spaces and trigger warnings. Muslims students often vociferously complain about anything that reflects poorly on Islam.
Academic pay is abysmal and so is there status. In a marked contrast the administrators are paid higher than ever. It is all about bums on seats. The more students the more money.
Much money is wasted on aesthetics. Students have better accommodation than ever. That is not a bad thing. But it is not a sensible way to spend money. These student halls are empty half the time. This exacerbates the housing crisis.
You can perform abysmally in school and still get a degree. I knew 18 year olds who were semi-literate. Shockingly they were later awarded degrees. People who failed all their A levels are sometimes accepted by universities. Why should they run when they cannot walk? Failing all your A levels really takes some doing.
We ought to accept that most people are not academic. There is no shame in that. We cannot all be scholars just as we cannot all be athletes or musicians. Some lucky souls can be all of these things. Gifts are not distributed equally.
Many people have been sold a pup. They have been conned into thinking that taking on £40 000 of debt for an almost worthless degree will guarantee them a handsomely remunerated job. Notice that educational benefits are hardly mentioned in a university’s pitch.
The big idea is that sending masses of people to ‘uni’ will boost the economy. There is little truth in this. In fact all this unmanageable debt is a drain on the economy. The Republic of Ireland has the highest university attendance rte in the world. That did not stop the crash of 2008. Some very prosperous nations have low graduation rates: Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands have it about 20%. There are countries with much higher university attendance rates like Georgia that are not rich at all.
Some well meaning left wing politicians in the 1960s set the ball rolling. In many cases they grew up working class. Third level education had been all but inaccessible to their parents. The Labour politicians wanted to bring the blessings of higher education to more people. It was a praiseworthy goal. But they were overzealous and went too far.
There has been a Dutch auction on standards. Students achieve less because less is expected of them. Universities ought to have exacting standards. A little failure in your teens is good for you. It inoculates a person against the adversity he or she will encounter in the workplace.
There are superb universities in the UK but very few. Much depends on the subject. Medicine and Veterinary Medicine are truly scholastic subjects. Standards for these subjects remain very high.
Course are dumbed down and stripped of difficult content. With new subjects there is no agreed corpus of knowledge. So they can be dumbed down more easily. What is media studies? No one knows. Therefore it can be made easier without giving the game away. In Chemistry you cannot do without the Periodic Table of Elements. That is why traditional subjects have not been gutted in the same way new fangled ones have. Note how the UK has fewer graduates in STEM subjects precisely because they cannot be made too simple.
We have in some respects experienced the Americanisation of higher education. The US has some of the top universities in the world. But even in the Ivy League there is corruption. Legatees are accepted due to bribes. Sorry I mean donations. Academic freedom is curtailed. There is a marriage of convenience between regressive capitalism and far left cultural theory. Academics dare not transgress certain mores or their careers are over. University is more expensive than ever but less worthwhile. As they say a century ago college taught ancient Greek. Now it teaches remedial English. At least in the US the government is not paying for all this bunkum.
The government gives the university less money than ever but demands more control. The government wants to bring in racist discrimination as policy. There are codes of conduct. Free speech is under assault. Students are to be mollycoddled. They cannot get up to high jinks. They are subjected to sub Marxist and feminist indoctrination. These are loony left fads from the United States.
In schools the same malaise has played out. Grade inflation plagues schools. A new grading system has sought to hide this. Tonnes of bureaucracy have ruined schooling and driven out many excellent teachers.
O levels were hard. In 1988 they became GCSEs which we much easier. Too many people got an A grade. Then an A * was introduced. The same happened to A levels. So many people got an A * that they whole system has been scrapped. The UK is returning to a numerical system it had in the 1970s. This time 9 is the best grade and 1 is the worst. It is permanent revolution. No wonder people are confused.
These problems have been around for decades. Michael Gove as Education Secretary made a small attempt to reverse grade inflation. There were howls of outrage.
As Gove said 50% of children are below average but try telling that to a middle class London parent. I did once and the woman was genuinely perplexed.#
All must have prizes! It is like Garrison Keeler’s satire about Lake Woebegone. The average is high and everyone is above it.
I am not being snooty about my abilities. I am a disaster in several subjects. If I had been around in the time of O levels I would have failed Maths, Latin and perhaps other subjects.
Why are school grades higher when everyone stays in school till 18 now? Grade inflation is the main factor. There are others. There is teaching to test.
It is extremely hard to become a teacher. It is organizationally difficult. It is not scholastically challenging. There are some brilliant and dedicated teachers. Schools vary enormously. But in many of them teachers are verbally abused non stop. Small wonder there is a teacher recruitment crisis. It is very hard to get science graduates to teach.
For 20 years Oxford had to teach Maths students extra classes before the start of term. That is because school Maths is no longer taxing enough. Universities say they cannot identify brilliant applicants because hordes of pupils have all top grades.
An academic at a London university told me a third of his undergraduates should not be there. Sullen and idle they will denounce him to the authorities if he does not give them a 2:1 or better for each essay. It is not all gloom. There are cerebral and hard working students as there always were.
University education ought to be pared back. So much money could have saved. The UK has two of the most renowned universities on the planet. We ought to view Oxford and Cambridge as national treasure. The government should be happy to pay whatever it takes to maintain their status. But the government is chicken shit. They bow to populist prejudice. They fail to fund varsity properly.
As for grades – it is no use awarding a first to 50% of students even if they have attained the requisite standard. A degree class is partly to tell people apart. Therefore there must be a cap on the % who can be awarded each class. Cheap popularity by awarding higher and higher grades much end.
The UK needs rigour in school exams. A law to prevent grade inflation must be introduced – i.e. a cap on the % who can get each grade.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.